At Work & Theology 101

How Do You Handle Failure at Work?

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4 million.

That’s how many people lost their job in 2009, in the midst of the Great Recession. David Murray, reflecting on these events of 2009 in an article entitled “Failure: The Last Taboo?” wrote,

And yet most of these 4 million had to endure a deep sense of personal failure, which affected not just their bank balance, but their marriages, their health, and often their relationship with God.

It seems strange to say that we can make an idol out of failure. After all, success is more quickly and commonly realized as an idol. It’s easy to see how people will do anything for success.

But that “deep sense of personal failure” has a powerful impact on our lives – meaning it has the potential to control us like an idol.

Avoiding Failure

Failure can be an idol at work because we sometimes do everything we can to avoid it.

Richard Winter, a psychiatrist, writes in his book Perfecting Ourselves to Death that “avoiding failure and the emotional uproar it creates” can become the most powerful force in our lives. And, as we discovered last week via Tim Keller’s exploration into idols, whatever is the most powerful force in our lives that isn’t God is an idol.

Keller writes in Counterfeit Gods that,

Idols give us a sense of being in control, and we can locate them by looking at our nightmares.

Failing, for many of us, is a nightmare.

Fearing Failure

Failure is a nightmare for many of us because it defines who we are. Winter, quoting authors Miriam Elliot and Susan Meltner, says that when we fail, we believe that our “entire identity is on the line.”

  • Failure causes shame and humiliation.
  • When we fail, we feel powerless and inadequate.
  • If we fail at work, we fear losing the approval, confidence, and respect of our bosses and colleagues.

This idol manifests itself in many ways:

  • Casting blame on other team members for the failure of a project or task.
  • Quitting a project when failure seems imminent.
  • Holding others to unobtainable standards because failure is unacceptable.
  • Procrastinating on tasks out of fear they’ll be executed poorly.
  • Being indecisive for fear of making the wrong decision.
  • Not initiating ideas because they might be rejected, and not initiating projects because they might fail.
  • Not pursuing a job or an opportunity – or even a vocation – because there is the possibility of failure.

That last point seems reminiscent of the parable of the talents – where the third servant hides the one talent he was given by the master out of fear. Fear of the master, yes, and perhaps also out of a fear of failure. What God-given skills are we burying because we’ve made an idol out of failure? And what are we missing out on when we bury these things?

An Opportunity for Grace

When we avoid failure, we avoid the shame that comes along with it. But we miss out on a lot, too.

Winter refers to failures as “useful lessons from which to learn.” We avoid opportunities for growth when we avoid challenges that come with the potential for failure.

Yet perhaps what we miss the most when we obsessively avoid failure is the opportunity to experience God’s grace.

Keller explains a common reaction to failure:

…since I have lost or failed “y”, now I can never be happy or forgiven again.

When we fail, we fear being placed outside the bounds of forgiveness, that if we fail, we’ll be too far gone for grace. So we just don’t try. At anything.

This isn’t an argument for purposeful failure just so we can experience grace. To paraphrase Paul, we shouldn’t fail just so grace may abound.

But in always trying to avoid failure, what we’re really doing is trying to be perfect. If we’re perfect, there is no room for grace, even though grace is what removes our idols. Keller declares:

God’s salvation does not come in response to a changed life. A changed life comes in response to the salvation, offered as a free gift.

That free gift of grace is what helps us know the love of Christ deeply in our hearts. It helps us know his love existentially, so we know his love for us never changes, no matter how big the failure. That steadfast love is what can wipe away our fear of failure and reverse all the manifestations of this idol in the workplace.

Murray writes,

But as we confess our failures, we experience the Lord’s unchanging and unconditional love…and eventually we see how God can transform our ugly failures into something profitable and even beautiful.

So, how do you handle fear at work?

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